Film Music: To Be or Not To Be

Like children, should film music be “seen and not heard”? Many people denigrate film music, saying it takes them out of the experience of watching the film. And yet, these same folks will go on to praise the cinematography, art direction, costumes and sound, which they wouldn’t have noticed had they not been taken out of the film for any length of time. The fact that we’re watching a story being played out on a 30-foot-high screen means we are suspending belief to a certain extent and allowing ourselves to be manipulated by every element that goes into making a film.

One famous story from Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) illustrates my point. The entire film takes place in real time aboard a lifeboat in midocean, in which a disparate group of shipwrecked passengers are trying to survive. When the picture was being edited, Hitchcock turned to composer Bernard Herrmann and said, “Wait a minute, Bernie, we’re in the middle of the ocean! Where is your music coming from?” Without missing a beat, Herrmann drily replied, “The same place your cameras are coming from.” (Hitchcock got his way and the film is played with no score.)

Some films do not need a score—Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network (1976) comes to mind. Yet when it is done well (and the director and sound mixer have some sensitivity to the issue), film music can convey character and add a level of storytelling that no camera, set, or hoop skirt can.

The question remains: Should film music be “seen and not heard”? I reply with a resounding “No!”

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